The Vagabonds: Ford, Edison, Firestone, Burroughs, Harding, Coolidge

Adventure is to LEAP trips what innovation is to Henry Ford, a process waiting to happen with unexpected ways of achieving it. During today’s visit of the Henry Ford research center and museum, we continued on our Vagabond quest, a three-part odyssey that includes: (1) to assist Mr. Jeff Guinn with research on the Vagabonds, (2) to learn as much as possible about the research process, and, (3) when possible, supplement our academic learning with additional learning from the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village.

“The Vagabonds” Project

Our project is to assist Mr. Jeff Guinn, who has written almost twenty books over his career.  Although Guinn uses a professional research (Jim Fuquay), he invited us to give us the opportunity to learn by doing and observing.

Jim Fuquay and Jeff Guinn
                                                                                                            Jim Fuquay and Jeff Guinn

His current book project is on “The Vagabonds,” a group that consisted of Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, John Burroughs, and, later, Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge.  These men gathered once a year to travel parts of the country while camping.

Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, John Burroughs, Harvey Firestone
             L-R: Ford, Edison, Burroughs, Firestone

Our research primarily took place at the Benson Ford Research Center, which has some 26 million artifacts, all but one million of which are paper documents.  Mr. Guinn assigned us several tasks:

  • itemizing the Vagabonds’ itineraries across the period 1915-1924;
  • itemizing Mr. Ford’s major achievements;
  • reviewing Mr. Ford’s newspapers, The Dearborn Independent
The Vagabonds
                          Paul Oliver, Ryan Brim, and Brian Aldaco Researching

To complete these tasks, we had the run of the archives, which included a library, endless storage space, and the Museum itself, which had its own artifacts on display.  We made use of all three.

Henry Ford Museum

But we also had a chance to break and enjoy free time, which doubled as a foundational education to both Ford and American history.  In the Ford Museum, for example, there are wings for the history of the automobile (including buses), the locomotive transportation, air transportation, civil rights, furniture, clocks, and electronic devices in the home.  It was a massive museum.

In the automotive section, for example, we were able to see Ford’s first vehicle, the “Quadricycle” of 1996.

Henry Ford, Quadricycle
                                                                                    Ford’s Quadricycle

We also saw the famous Model T, the speed-setting “Goldenrod”….

The Goldenrod, Henry Ford Museum, Land Speed Record
                                     “The Goldenrod,” Holder of the Land Speed Record from 1966-1991

…and plethoric presidential limousines, including those that used by Teddy Roosevelt…

Teddy Roosevelt, Brougham, Henry Ford Museum
                                           Teddy Roosevelt’s Presidential “Limousine,” the Brougham


FDR's Presidential Limousine, Henry Ford Museum

…John F. Kennedy, which was used for 11 years after his death…

John F. Kennedy Presidential Limousine, Henry Ford Museum
                                            The Limousine in Which Kennedy was Assassinated

…and Ronald Reagan.

Ronald Reagan, Presidential Limousine, Henry Ford Museum

Interestingly, while on the trip, John Hinckley was released from his court-mandated asylum-cum-prison.  When he shot at Reagan, one of the bullets hit the limo, ricocheted off, and hit President Reagan under the arm.  It was a timely trip in many ways.

We also had a chance to see a special exhibit on The Beatles.

The Beatles, Henry Ford Museum
                                                                                           The Beatles

It included authentic memorabilia, original instruments and cases, music samples…


…and even a section where you can become a Beatle.

The Beatles' Exhibit, Henry Ford Museum
         The Beatles, 2016: Yawn, Aldaco, Oliver, Brim (note: Ryan’s hairdo is more or less the same)

We advantageously stuck our heads through the opening of the exhibit and in between the Beatles’ mannequins and wigs, ready to take the very amusing photograph. Although small, this temporary exhibit was well put together and informative by capturing the rise of the Beatles, along with their overwhelming fame, innovative methods of recording music, and legendary status.


Next to The Beatles’ exhibit was the Dymaxion House, the house of the future from the late 1940s. The lightweight aluminum circular house with its own rainwater collection system, a downdraft air system, and the ability to withstand high speed winds was designed by architect Buckminster Fuller. It is the last remaining model of two total units, which Fuller hoped would become the all-American home.


The exhibits were educational, but so was the research.  On one afternoon, for example, we had the chance to sit in on an interview Mr. Guinn conducted with Bob Casey, the former curator of automobiles for the Henry Ford Museum. He was immensely generous and helpful, sharing insights from his many years with the Museum.

Such generosity was the norm.  Mr. Guinn generously invited us to accompany him on this research trip, the Research Center staff were professional, generous and knowledgeable, and the people with whom we met went above and beyond their duties.  It was a learning experience not only for the factual knowledge we gained, but also for the ability to witness the professional norms of the research and Museum business.


Greenfield VIllage

Late in the afternoon, we also had a chance to explore Greenfield Village. Our first stop there was the Model-T station, where we could hop onto an authentic Model-T!

Model T, Greenfield Village, Henry Ford Museum
                                             Brian and Ryan (B-Ryan) Enjoy a Model T Ride

Brian and Ryan got on first and drove off merrily, while Prof. Yawn and Paul waited for the next one. The latter pair got to ride in a 1914 Model-T.

Greenfield Village, Model T Ford, Henry Ford Museum
                                      Driver and Paul Oliver Discuss the Model T and Avoid Oncoming Traffic

The driver was extremely helpful and full of fascinating information. For instance, she explained that one way to distinguish a 1914 was to note the brass used in its design. After 1917, brass was no longer used on the exterior because it was needed for the American war effort in the First World War. She also told us that the Model-T was designed to be the “universal car,” designed to compete with the horse and buggy as opposed to other motor companies. This was a good sales strategy until the outdated Model-T started to slide the way of the horse and buggy as a transportation relic!  Although, it should be noted that despite the Model T falling out of fashion, the machines did not stop working.  Indeed, one of the cars on which we rode had more than one million miles on it!

Following our Model-T ride, we went our separate ways, each exploring a different part of the village. Paul returned to the frozen custard place for a second go at the delicious dessert before wandering aimlessly down to the “Porches & Parlors” district of Greenfield Village. In true tycoon style, Henry Ford would arrange for various houses or buildings that interested him to be purchased and placed in Greenfield Village. This undertaking, and the subsequent efforts of the Henry Ford Museum to continue this tradition, have left the village as an eclectic hodgepodge of American history. In the part that Paul wandered through, he saw the home of Noah Webster, creator of the first American dictionary, and a home owned by the great poet Robert Frost.

In the tradition of taking the road less traveled, Paul continued on to see some of the slave quarters from the Hermitage, Andrew Jackson’s home, as well as the cabin of George Washington Carver. His longest stop was at the Daggett Farmhouse, which is an authentic edifice from 1760, originally located in Connecticut. The owner was a dilettante in the extreme, being a butcher, a carpenter, a farmer, and a home-builder all-in-one!

Meanwhile Ryan and Brian boarded an authentic steam engine train on Firestone Station. From there they toured through the perimeter of the Village, trailing through homes and warehouses of nearly every time period in American history. With the clickitty-clack of the track and the roaring whistle of the engine, the locomotive ride provided an authentic sensual experience for what a trip in such a machine would feel like during the 1800s. But after completing the full circuit, as the last ride of the day, with great sorrow we saw the Village and Museum close for the day.

Greenfield Village, Henry Ford Museum
                                                             Greenfield Village Train Ride

We then left the grounds en route to meet with Mr. Fuqua and Mr. Guinn for dinner.

Dinner: Lue Thai Cafe

After the short drive to Dearborn we met for dinner at a place called the Lue Thai Cafe. We had the crispy rolls, followed by huge entrees of Thai food. Paul had the peanut noodles, Ryan had the udon noodles, and Brian the jub chai, not knowing what to expect from this foreign cuisine. Over dinner, Mr. Guinn and Mr. Fuqua lamented the current cost of college tuition (a subject dear to Brian and Paul), while comparing to the “back in the day” cost. They also regaled us with tales from their time working at the Fort Worth Star Telegram. With plates half empty, for even though we very much enjoyed the spicy taste of thai there was no more that would could take from the bountiful serving, we departed with a “see you later” and went back to our hotel. Both of these men really are chock-full of great stories, and it is a pleasure to be able to work with them for a week!


Author: mikeyawn

Mike Yawn teaches at Sam Houston State University. In the past few years, he has taught courses on Politics & Film, Public Policy, the Presidency, Media & Politics, Congress, Statistics, Research & Writing, Field Research, and Public Opinion. He has published academic papers in the Journal of Politics, Political Behavior, Social Security Quarterly, Film & History, American Politics Review, and contributed a chapter to the textbook Politics and Film. He also contributes columns, news analysis, and news stories to newspapers such as the Houston Chronicle, San Antonio Express News, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Stamford Advocate, Greenwich Time, Huron Daily Tribune, Laredo Morning Times, Beaumont Enterprise, Connecticut Post, and Midland Reporter Telegram. Yawn is also active in his local community, serving on the board of directors of the local YMCA and Friends of the Wynne. Previously, he served on the Huntsville's Promise and Stan Musial World Series Boards of Directors. In 2007-2008, Yawn was one of eight scholars across the nation named as a Carnegie Civic Engagement Scholar by the Carnegie Foundation.

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